From Rome to Magdalen Bridge: the history of Oxford’s iconic tradition May surprise you

Image description: May Day celebrations in Wheatley, Oxford

We’ve all been there. The Cheese Floor still ringing in your ears as you trudge down a High Street which would not look out of place in Shaun of the Dead, with the promise of hearing better music at the end of it. The ever-disapproving sun rising over the inebriated, sleep-deprived rabble. The attempts in lectures later on to convince yourself that it definitely was worth staying up all night and sabotaging your next day. In the chaos and wonder of May Day, rarely do we stop to think about what the iconic Oxford tradition actually means, or where it came from. So, without further ado, allow me to share with you the story of the festival, if I May.

If someone came up to you today and asked if you wanted to “dance around the maypole,” you could be forgiven for Googling “how to section someone” afterwards. And yet this is exactly what people in the Swedish town of Ammeberg (the town in the picture) and many other towns across Northern Europe do, and have been doing, for centuries, on the 1st of May every year. They gather round a tall, decorated wooden pole usually made out of birch, and dance and sing along to folk songs.

Scholars remain divided as to what the pole itself symbolises specifically, since the structure, which has its roots in Germanic paganism, spans such a broad range of countries and cultures that it could represent any number of Gods, local folk tales and superstitions. However, there is a consensus, as English historian Ronald Hutton and Swedish scholar Carl Wilhelm von Sydow note, that poles were erected as “signs that the happy season of warmth and comfort had returned” (see end note for reference).

Poles aside, as for the May Day festival itself, the first recorded celebrations were the Floralia, the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, held on 27 April during the Roman Republic era, and the Maiouma or Maiuma, a festival celebrating Dionysus and Aphrodite on an unknown date in May every three years. The Floralia opened with theatrical performances. In the Floralia, hares and goats were released as part of the festivities. Crowds were pelted with vetches, beans, and lupins. A ritual called the Florifertum was performed on either April 27 or May 3, during which a bundle of wheat ears was carried into a shrine, though it is not clear if this devotion was made to Flora or Ceres. Floralia concluded with competitive events and spectacles and a sacrifice to Flora.

Since the late 1400s, the Magdalen College Choir has sung the Hymnus Eucharisticus from the top of Magdalen Tower at 6 am on the 1st of May every year.

The Maiouma was a nocturnal dramatic festival, held every three years and was known as the Maioumas because it is celebrated in the month of ‘May-Artemisios.’ During this time, enough money was set aside by the government for torches, lights, and other expenses to cover a thirty-day festival of ‘all-night revels.’ The Maiouma was celebrated with splendorous banquets and offerings. Its reputation for licentiousness caused it to be suppressed during the reign of Emperor Constantine between 306 AD and 337 AD, though a less debauched version of it was briefly restored during the reigns of Arcadius (395-408 AD) and Honorius (408-425), only to be suppressed again during the same period.

Of course, the size of the Roman Empire and the diversity of the cultures it presided over meant that the festival was never going to be celebrated the same way everywhere. It has taken various forms over the centuries, including the Catholic commemorations of St. Joseph the worker, the pagan festival of Beltane, which translates from ancient Gaelic as “lucky fire” and involved people blessing their livestock by making them jump over special bonfires, and the Germanic pagan festival of maypole dancing. It was this latter tradition that gave birth to the English version of the holiday, which typically incorporated folk songs and Morris dancing.

Centuries later, this same tradition has survived in rural England, having changed little since its inception. People in villages such as Wheatley in Oxfordshire still dance around a maypole and crown the ‘Queen of May,’ a girl chosen by the dancers to represent the fertility of the summer season and the Virgin Mary. Heyfield in Darbishire is still yet to break this tradition, having followed it for over 500 years. The government even added the May Day bank holiday to the calendar in 1978.

So how do we get from Morris dancing in villages to drunk students jumping off Magdalen Bridge at 6 in the morning? Well, tempting as it would be to say that the rumours of London’s Mayfair being named after a particularly debauched and raucous festival during the 18th Century were in some way related to this practice, the Oxford tradition of gathering on the bridge goes back much further than this.

In the chaos and wonder of May Day, rarely do we stop to think about what the iconic Oxford tradition actually means, or where it came from.

Since the late 1400s, the Magdalen College Choir has sung the Hymnus Eucharisticus from the top of Magdalen Tower at 6 am on the 1st of May every year. Large crowds normally gather under the tower along the High Street and on Magdalen Bridge. This is then followed by general revelry and festivities including Morris dancing in Radcliffe between the University Church and the Radcliffe Camera, folk music and dancing, etc., for a couple of hours from around 6.15am onwards. 

 Add less conservative drinking habits and a bit of 60s edginess, and you get people launching themselves into the tenebrous depths of the Cherwell (no journalistic defamation intended), which became a regular thing in the 80s. Some areas of the river are indeed deeper than others, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the practice has often gone awry. In 1997, a student was paralyzed, and 2005 saw ten students taken to hospital, leading to the closure of Magdalen Bridge on May Morning from 1998 to 2001, and again from 2006 to 2009.

The May Day tradition of staying up all night to listen to the choir and enjoy the festivities truly is an experience to enjoy and cherish. It has been a part of Oxford life for centuries, and makes for a great story. It is also a patchwork of hundreds of years of cultural rituals which blends ancient Roman Gods and Germanic pagan folklore with the ecclesiastical history of the University. So, wherever you spend Wednesday morning, be it at Fever, on the bridge, or in bed asleep, May you remember that historic day, and its meaning to millions of people over the years.


End Note: Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 1996, Oxford University Press, p.235

Image credit: via Flickr